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Gardener’s Hope Springs Eternal

Photos by Nora Edinger Gail Paige grows everything from cilantro to collard greens in her Wheeling Island garden. Some produce is eaten fresh. She also preserves some of it for winter meals as relishes, pickles and salsa.

WHEELING — Gail Paige is itching to plant something, but knows better.

“I turned the dirt over a couple of weeks ago and then the weather got funky,” says Paige, looking out longingly at four raised beds at the back of her Wheeling Island property.

With temperatures swinging from just below freezing to the low 80s within a handful of days, Paige ultimately decided to keep a flat of basil, collard greens and such stuff tucked safely inside her sunlit kitchen.

For now at least.

Paige is no stranger to such vagaries. Since purchasing her home — which sits in sight of where the earth slopes toward the Ohio River’s back channel — she’s seen late freezes and the occasional critter. There are also the sobering markers in the basement that indicate where past flood waters have stopped.

“I’ve been lucky,” she said of avoiding the latter.

But, she’s also been happy to be so close to the river. Her island property, which had rich enough soil to scoop up into raised beds with only moderate need for amendments, is flat and broad. It is exactly what she dreamed of since learning the basics of gardening from her mother as a child.

“We grew up in East Wheeling,” Paige said. “We didn’t have much of a yard. It was so hilly. But, we did have a little flat place where she would put tomatoes. She would put some stuff in pots, too.

“This is full fledged in the seven years I’ve been here because I actually had the space,” Paige said, gesturing toward the row of beds and lattice work.

“They already had garden space set up,” Paige said of previous homeowners. “So, I was in my world.”

STEP BY STEP

Not to say that going from a few tomatoes on a flat space to trying out everything from corn to collards hasn’t involved a learning curve.

She learned about the beds and lattices from Kate Marshall, facilitator of the island’s House of Hagar, for example. Marshall did a program through Northern Panhandle Head Start, for which Paige teaches.

Paige also likes to experiment a bit on her own. Sometimes — even though she’s not big into flowers — she and a daughter grow morning glories behind the vegetables.

“One year, I did a whole lot of peppers,” she added. “Banana peppers, bell peppers, all the colors. It was so beautiful.”

These days, she’s pretty much settled on apples from the two trees at one side of the yard and zucchini, collard greens, cucumbers, beefsteak tomatoes, cherry tomatoes, green beans, corn and lettuce grown on the other.

Well, maybe not lettuce, she added.

“I’m not doing that this year. I have some animals,” she said, noting she spotted a groundhog in the vicinity of her garden fence while taking out the trash. “They try to creep in there and eat that (lettuce). They’re not interested in the collards, though.”

YARD TO TABLE

Collards. That tricky, intimidatingly fibrous green. Paige has also learned how to cook them along the way.

“We eat a lot of vegetables in this house — especially the greens,” she said. “They taste so good when you’ve just gone out and picked them.”

And seriously soaked them. She puts collards through several changes of water for at least an hour before any cooking begins. “You’ve got to get all that grit out of there,” she said of removing soil that can become trapped in the textured leaves.

Paige then adds the greens and a piece of smoked turkey to boiling water and lets them simmer for a good four to five hours — until tender, summer bliss is achieved.

And, while canning relishes, pickles and salsas can involve similarly long stints in the kitchen, she noted not all gardening is so stove intensive.

Her favorites are often eaten while still warm from summer sun. “A nice cherry tomato or a beefsteak. I don’t need nothing else. I just bite right into it.”

ABUNDANCE

“I got plenty of apples and my vegetables. I’m content with that,” Paige said of what has turned into abundance.

She was actually relieved that another flowering specimen on the side of the property turned out to be a dogwood rather than a peach tree, as she had been told. She’s not sure what she’d do with a third treeful of fruit.

If the past is any evidence, she’d probably share, she joked. “People just call me, ‘Hey, Gail. You got any apples?’ and I say, ‘Come on over.’ “

So, looking at those empty beds filled with rich, river soil, Paige can feel hints of summer in the air and is itching to plant something.

“I’m hoping for better this year.”

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